Thursday, July 12, 2012

An Easy and Impressive Dessert: The New York Cheesecake


I like baking cheesecakes, and I love eating them.  But I noticed a discrepancy between the types I bake and those I order.  When I bake, I tend to choose chocolate-y cheesecakes—Chocolate Marble Cheesecake, Chocolate Brownie Cheesecake, etc.—but I often like to order a basic plain cheesecake, sometimes with strawberries. 

It occurred to me that perhaps the limitation in my cheesecake repertoire might owe something to the fact that many cookbooks, especially newer ones, feel they have to offer more “unique” recipes.  So I went in search of a basic cheesecake recipe.  Since Will is a huge fan of sour cream topped cheesecakes, I decided to try Ruth Reichl’s New York Cheesecake.  Here’s a link to a website with her recipe: http://www.culinate.com/books/collections/all_books/Garlic+and+Sapphires/new_york_cheesecake

Having baked this cheesecake, I want to offer a few thoughts:

Mixing

I liked the fact that Ruth Reichl’s recipe is quite minimalist.  Often I’ve thought that recipes wanted to make cooking appear as mysterious as possible by including all sorts of steps that were not really necessary.  Ever the engineer, Will likes to follow the recipe closely the first time we attempt a particular recipe, just to see what was so special about those obscure methods; I tend to skip over those steps both out of laziness and an intolerance for making things more difficult.  So I was quite happy to see that Reichl’s recipe had very few steps—including mixing everything together.  Here though, another step or two might have helped. 

I know that many cake recipes call for blending in each egg separately.  You don’t have to include that step, but I might suggest that you mix everything together and then fold in the lemon zest separately with a spatula.  Lemon zest, when blended along with all the other ingredients, tended to clump onto the beaters.  Dislodging the clumps from the beater often resulted in lumps of zest in the cheesecake batter—which I had to manually separate and smooth out.

Topping

It’s possible that your cooked cheesecake might not look perfectly smooth and “golden in spots” like the directions say.  In fact, it’s quite likely that you will have higher edges or cracked centers and, overall, a more “cratered” cheesecake than the ones you have seen at the Cheesecake Factory or imagined in your dreams.  That’s ok.  Don’t fuss with it.  Just follow the next step: the topping.


When I first saw the recipe, I thought the “2 cups sour cream” was a misprint.  After all, the cheesecake itself only contained 1½ pounds of cream cheese.  When I saw my cracked cheesecake come out of the oven, I realized where all the excess sour cream would go.  Really, the 2 cups of sour cream topping (made much more ice cream-like by the addition of sugar and vanilla) performed wonders in covering up imperfections in the cheesecake by filling in cracks and craters and smoothing out uneven sides and center.  It also produced a lovely uniform hue for the top of the cheesecake.  (You can see in the picture below how thick that layer of sour cream topping is.)


But if your cheesecake was picture-perfect coming out of the oven, you might spare yourself some extra calories and reduce the topping to 1 cup of sour cream, 2 T sugar, and ½ t vanilla—and reduce the cooking time to 8-10 minutes.

Finishing Touch

Ruth Reichl mentioned that she didn’t care for the gooey cherry topping often found on top of cheesecakes.  I heartily agree.  In fact, I could do without the artificially-thickened “pie filling” in most desserts.  But, while I like plain cheesecakes as well, I enjoy cheesecake most with fruit.  If you have it, some fresh berries like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries are the best accompaniments (like in the photo at the top of this post).

If you don’t have fresh fruit around—or if you want your fruit topping to be juicier, saucier—here’s a simple method of making a topping with frozen fruits:

Place ½ cup of frozen berries in a microwave safe bowl and stir in 1 T powdered sugar.  Microwave for about 15 seconds, remove, and stir in another 1 T powdered sugar.  Microwave for another 20 seconds until the sugar is incorporated and the juice is slightly thickened.  You want to make sure that the fruit is defrosted but not hot.  You can add a little lemon juice if you wish, but that’s not even necessary.  


This topping is also great for sponge cakes, for berry short cakes, and for plain Greek yogurt.



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